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Anarchism and the working class: the union of Russian workers in the North American labor movement

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Thesis type
(Thesis) Ph.D.
Date created
Thousands of Russian anarchist immigrants, organized by the Union of Russian Workers (URW), took part in a surging union movement and strike wave that broke out across North America in the 1910s. However, they have received scant attention from historians, and no account of the URW exists. My dissertation fills in this gap by detailing the activity of the URW against the background of the rising labor movement, and it considers the question of anarchism's relationship to the working class. Historians have traditionally situated anarchism outside of the labor movement, yet the Russian anarchists in North America joined both radical and mainstream unions, and URW leaders recruited migrants explicitly by appealing to their class interests as foreign workers exploited by American capitalism. The study highlights the anarchists’ involvement in labor organizing, and it centers their perspectives to help narrate a history of the period. It first traces a history of the international anarchist movement along with migration patterns to North America in order to contextualize the research and shed light on the origins of the URW and why their story matters. Utilizing anarchist publications, local English-language newspapers, government surveillance files, and archival materials, the study finds that URW members made a wide array of contributions to the emerging industrial union movement in the United States and developed a critique of American capitalism that ranged beyond the immediate strikes. It argues that alongside the Industrial Workers of the World, the URW helped to push labor to the left and prepare the ground for the rise of major industrial unions with socialist leanings in the 1930s. Simultaneously, the study shows how the URW harnessed its strength in North America to make substantial material contributions to the anarchist movement in Russia, in the lead up to the 1917 revolution, while developing an anti-Bolshevik critique also echoed by subsequent movements on the left. By locating Russian anarchism and the URW in the labor movement, this study challenges historiographical claims which deny anarchism's working-class character. Thus, it contributes to a growing body of newer research which finds the anarchist movement rooted in labor and working-class organizing.
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Supervisor or Senior Supervisor
Thesis advisor: Vinkovetsky, Ilya
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